Winning essay examines the case for investing in space
Felix Webby is a Year 13 student at Francis Douglas Memorial College. His winning entry in the Witt Taranaki Science and Technology Fair poses the question: Should New Zealand become more involved in the Space Industry?
The development of the human race is fuelled by our innate curiosity, our desire to uncover the hidden workings of the world around us.
Throughout our history great explorers with inquisitive minds have allowed for the progression and expansion of our world, creating the vast, interconnected society that we live in today.
The same forces that motivated James Cook and Christopher Columbus to set out into the great unknown are now pushing modern humans, including New Zealanders to look upwards at the stars and yearn for discovery.
This past year has seen New Zealand become more involved in the space industry. The NZ Space Agency was established within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment with the purpose of ensuring "the development of a peaceful, safe, responsible and secure space industry that meets New Zealand's international obligations."
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2016 also saw New Zealand become only the 11th country to have launched a satellite into space. With these recent advancements, questions have arisen regarding whether or not our nation should continue expanding our space industry or divert our resources towards other areas.
To form an opinion on this interesting economic question one must first understand what we stand to gain by investing in growing this industry.
Positives of New Zealand becoming more involved in the space industry
Space exploration is one of the most exciting fields in science today. It increases our understanding of the universe and, as a consequence, our place in it. To say that Earth is simply a grain of sand on the great beach that is the universe would be a gross exaggeration of our significance.
To the best of our knowledge, there are over 200 billion galaxies, approximately 1024 planets, and innumerable stars.
While this perspective is humbling and satisfies some of our curiosity, the space industry involves more than just exploring what is out there for the fun of it.
If space exploration reveals a planet that is capable of supporting life and we can advance our technology enough to make space travel a viable economic option it would effectively negate any concerns over overcrowding.
In addition to this, many are concerned that our planet is past the point of no return when it comes to climate change.
Moving to a new planet may seem like science fiction today, but in the future, it may be the only viable option.
In a more practical sense, being able to observe Earth from a distance via satellites increases our understanding of earth and its atmosphere which, in turn, leads to more scientific knowledge about weather patterns and natural disasters.
In today's society, everybody with access to the internet can check the weather forecast and be reasonably confident in its accuracy.
We take this technology for granted and do not consider how this information is gathered by meteorologists.
The answer is weather satellites, the first of which was sent into space in 1960.
These satellites are the reason we can make predictions about the weather and the benefits of these satellites go beyond knowing whether or not your weekend sporting fixture will be cancelled.
With the high-quality images provided by this technology, meteorologists have been able to give a warning about severe storms and tornados that begin in the middle of the ocean where they would otherwise go unnoticed until it was too late.
This ability to be prepared for natural disasters has unquestionably saved lives and is the result of the space industry.
We rely on the resources from one planet to sustain us, a planet that is being sucked dry of these natural resources by human consumption.
Companies such as Planetary Resources are already looking at the resources in space and how they could benefit us here on earth.
President and chief executive Chris Lewicki said their end goal is to "expand the economic sphere of influence of humanity into the solar system".
The number of asteroids in space is massive and these asteroids are believed to be rich in valuable resources such as fuels, precious metals, and water.
If humans want to expand throughout the solar system we will need far more resources than are available here on earth.
It is likely that in the future asteroid prospecting and mining will be an extremely profitable field that will have huge economic benefits for those countries involved.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of the space industry is the one that the least people are aware of.
The technology developed for space travel and exploration has not only provided thousands of people with jobs but it has also sparked innovation in other fields.
Every year Nasa releases an issue of Nasa Spinoff. Since its inception in 1976, nearly 1800 commercial ventures have been catalogued and every single one of them only exists due to technology created by the space industry.
Some we are familiar with such as GPS navigation systems and even common batteries, however, there are many less well-known examples that are having a positive impact on people's lives every day.
For example, the medical industry owes much of its technology to Nasa.
MRIs and CAT scans are only possible because they utilise image enhancing technology developed by Nasa to enhance pictures of the moon.
Also, in 1995 a heart pump called the Left Ventricular Assist Device was created by engineers at the Johnson Space Center using knowledge about space shuttles' fuel pumps.
Spaceflight Software has also been adapted to be used in combating bank fraud. This is a significant problem. Space.com reports: "Each year $11.4 billion is lost in credit card fraud".
The data crunching capabilities of the software used by the European Space Agency is now being put to use in the financial world in the form of security software.
As well as searching for a planet that could support human life, the technology used in the space industry is also being used to address issues such as climate change right here on earth.
A prime example of this is the company Solar Reserve which, as the name suggests, is a renewable energy company based in California.
This company transferred knowledge from engineers that had built the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) which had to endure temperatures ranging from -253°C to 3300 °C, to solar power technology.
According to the business development manager, Randy Parsley, "the company's Nasa work allowed it to glean new expertise in handling high heat flux, extreme temperatures, and cyclic temperature gradients over long periods of time".
This company has proved to be a huge success in the renewable energies industry.
Their solar energy plant, called the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant, creates enough 100 per cent clean energy to power over 75,000 homes.
Advancements in the creation of clean energy like this are constantly making renewable sources more economically viable, leading to reduced carbon emissions and climate change.
These are just a few examples, the list of technologies that owe their existence to the space industry goes on and on.
Without realising it, many of the amazing creations we interact with and rely on in our everyday lives are derived from space industry technology.
Negatives of New Zealand becoming more involved in the space industry
The question of whether New Zealand should become more involved in the space industry boils down to economics.
Our government has a limited budget and we need to decide what to invest in.
The space industry is expensive, no doubt about it. Building the technology and rockets as well as training astronauts costs an extraordinary amount of money.
Nasa, the most well-known government funded space program, was budgeted over $19.6 billion to spend on space exploration and research in 2016.
To many New Zealanders, spending money on the space industry is not a good investment. They believe space exploration should be left to private companies such as those created by billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Richard Branson.
To justify this point of view they point out that New Zealand is by no means a perfect society.
Issues such as poverty, housing affordability child abuse, and mental health cannot be understated and they need to be addressed by the government.
From the perspective of some New Zealanders, it is ridiculous to consider investing in the space industry when there is so much suffering in our society that could be alleviated if the government devoted more resources to finding solutions.
Another issue created by the space industry is space pollution.
At first, this might not seem like a significant issue as space is so vast.
However, further inspection reveals a real problem that needs to be given consideration.
Since the beginning of space exploration, there have been over 5000 launches of satellites and rockets into space, leading to congestion in the space surrounding the earth.
According to an article written by the BBC, there is "500,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10cm, more than 21,000 pieces larger than 10cm more than 100 million pieces below 1cm".
These pieces of space debris may seem insubstantial, however, they are travelling at incredible speeds (over 28000 km/h) and, therefore, possess enough momentum to cause irreparable damage to the satellites we are so dependent on.
To me, it is obvious that the benefits of the space industry far outweigh the negatives.
Space exploration has tangible economic benefits other than simply fulfilling our need for curiosity.
A larger space industry in New Zealand would mean more jobs for New Zealanders.
These jobs would include more than just astronauts and highly qualified scientists. Space exploration projects require a strong workforce of engineers, technicians and other labourers.
The innovation in the technology used in the space industry also spills over to other industries.
Every day in our lives we benefit from the space industry and we need to continue this growth.
Our nation is known for punching above our weight and being world leaders whether it be in exploration, sport or another field.
The space industry is yet another opportunity for us to excel and be recognised on the world stage.
Therefore, I believe that it is imperative that New Zealand becomes more involved in the space industry.